December 10, 2020
President Robert W. Iuliano
To echo the warm sentiments expressed by Rev. Largen and Provost Zappe, I want to begin this evening by offering all of our graduates a heartfelt congratulations on the completion of your academic requirements at Gettysburg College, and as others have said, on the extraordinary resilience, in particular, that you have demonstrated over the course of the last 10 months.
So often, the challenges we face—those we overcome, as well as those that cause us to stumble, to doubt, to brush ourselves off, and move forward perhaps a bit bruised but yet stronger—those challenges have a special way of preparing us for what lies just around the bend in our professional and personal lives. I’m confident that this will be true for you as well, when the pandemic recedes and becomes something that is in our past rather than in our present.
Let me say what both the Provost and Rev. Largen have said, a recognition of just how difficult it must be to conclude your student experience at the College in this manner—engaging virtually through a screen, when your fondest memories of this campus have undoubtedly centered around an intimacy that defines this place. The close bonds formed with faculty and friends. Relationships that last a lifetime.
Since the outset of the pandemic, we have all been forced to reorient ourselves to a world that in itself has become increasingly disorienting. Still, that reorientation is something this community and your Gettysburg education has equipped you to do. And it’s what I would like to speak with you about tonight, briefly.
As we convene today, I am reminded of what I regard as a compelling insight from the writer and author Alvin Toffler, who observed, and here I quote: “the illiteracy of the 21st century will not be of those who cannot read and write, but of those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
There is nothing simple about unlearning and relearning. It’s the primary reason the pandemic continues to endure across this country, and why other plagues of society—from racism to economic inequality to hunger—have persisted for millennia despite our deep knowledge of their causes and devasting effects. It’s human nature for each of us to become married to our own thinking, our own beliefs, and our own behaviors—to the lives we lead and to all that we believe we know.
This begs the question: how then do we train our minds to unlearn and relearn within a world that demands we become more adaptable and ever more aware of the consequences of our own actions and their impact on others?
One way is to resist the temptation of binary thinking. What do I mean by this?
Think about computer science courses, those of you who have taken them. You know that coding is a series of ones and zeros—the language of computers. As reflected in this coding environment, binary simplifies choices into two stark alternatives: zero or one, this or that, right or wrong, black or white.
Binary thinking is neither inherently good or bad; it entirely depends on the context and the issue. To some extent, we’re wired to think this way—many issues before us simply don’t necessitate deeper cognitive analysis, and creating binaries permits quicker, low-stake decisions. Which shirt should I wear today? Pizza or salad for lunch? Skim or carefully read the last 50 pages of my assignment for class?
Yet, that’s not true for issues that matter, where deeper thinking and openness to alternative perspectives is essential. Regrettably, in a time so polarized and hyper-charged by technology, the application of binary thinking to complicated issues has become ever more commonplace, even encouraged. That’s because we’re inclined to crave clarity, speed, and definitiveness, so we subscribe to points of views heavily influenced by our environment and friends, without necessarily carefully reflecting on what truly matters to us and the sort of world we want to help fashion.
We too often resort to defining those around us by superficial labels or by the limited interactions we have with those who share such labels—such as party affiliation—instead of taking the time to truly get to know people as individuals. We increasingly see the world in terms of us and them, othering those who do not look like or think quite like us.
These actions, if unchecked, can represent a hard line between us and those outside of our own tribe of thinkers. It forms a rigidness within us that affords little slack for fresh perspectives, for subtly, or for future growth. This is both limiting and damaging. It erodes dialogue and widens the divides between us. We can see this in our own democracy today, and as Gettysburgians, we know how this story can end. We saw it in 1863.
Binary thinking can also cap our individual potential, and the inspiring possibilities that lie before us. It can serve as a form of a self-imposed constraint—and by virtue of that, limit our capacity to understand and celebrate the richness of the world around us.
So then, how do we overcome this instinct within ourselves to oversimplify? How do you as Gettysburg College graduates avoid the pitfalls of binary thinking?
This evening, I’d like to propose to you three key steps:
First, take your liberal arts and sciences education and put it to good use. Your Gettysburg experience has endowed you with a remarkable gift—the ability to see from multiple vantage points, to marshal facts and evidence, to formulate and communicate sound judgments. Apply what you have learned during your years here to achieve a fuller understanding of the world, your place in it, and your hopes for it in your future.
Second, familiarize yourself with your own presumptions and preconceptions. We all tilt our perceptions based upon our own experiences and learnings. Realize where this benefits you and where it limits your growth and effectiveness. And, most importantly, develop the courage to name and to combat those presumptions and preconceptions as you move forward.
Finally, embrace the difficult path and the uncomfortable conversations. Seeing the world in black and white may be easier, but it is the gray of life that truly gives it its vibrancy. It is the messy, the complicated, the nuanced that offers the promise of enlightenment and the beauty to your story and personal relationships.
With this, my charge to you as Gettysburg College graduates is challenging, but rewarding:
Lean into life’s complexity.
Find order and meaning amid today’s uncertainty. Build allies among those with whom you disagree. Solve the unsolvable by seeing what others choose not to see, and by acting upon what generations before you have long written off as unachievable.
Let me conclude.
In Robert Frost’s iconic poem, he speaks of two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Sorry that he could not travel both, he looked down one as far as he could, until it bent in the undergrowth. Ultimately, he chose to take the path less traveled by, and that made all the difference.
As you look out into the world, and consider who you want to be and where you want to go—you may choose between these two roads: the prevailing or the less traveled. Or, you can take the skills you have learned here and forge your own path. You can be the first and lead others to a future we have yet to experience or even imagine.
You can be different and can be the difference.
Graduates, I wish you the very best in the months and years ahead, and look forward to hearing about all that you will accomplish out in the world.
A hearty congratulations!